It’s been a wacky week in science. First there was that computer
that supposedly passed the Turing test, a 50-year old benchmark in
artificial intelligence research. Then, on Thursday (12 June), a
29-year-old paralysed man in a robotic exoskeleton took the opening
kick in the World Cup in Brazil.
In both cases, the researchers behind the demonstrations have
made grand claims about their importance as scientific
breakthroughs. And in both cases critics have complained that
they’re little more than publicity stunts. The Turing test chatbot
look so great under closer scrutiny, and the long-awaited
exoskeleton demo turned out to be a lot less dramatic than what was initially promised, at
least judging by what was shown on TV.
All of which raises the question: Are spectacles like this bad
for science? Or can taking science out of the lab and into the
limelight serve a greater purpose?
For some thoughts on this we turned to Hank
Greely, a law professor at Stanford who specialises in
bioethics. Greely himself has been a supporter (with caveats) of
another highly publicised and controversial scientific endeavour:
the Revive and Restore
project, which aims to use genetic engineering and synthetic
biology to bring the passenger pigeon and other species back from
Wired: What did you think of the World Cup
Hank Greely: If you’re going to have a spectacle
it really should be spectacular. If you’re going to build it up,
you don’t want to fall flat, both for your own purposes and the
good of science. In this case, I could see some people saying,
that’s it? I could see others saying, it’s not much but it’s an
So, overall, do you think it was good or bad for
I don’t think it was a big deal either way.
Are there times when spectacles are good for
I think they can be. When they attract public attention in a
positive way, they can help build support for science in two ways.
They can build political support among the masses, and they might
spark some people to learn more or even go into science. The space
program made me want to be a scientist…then the third quarter of
calculus made me decide to be a lawyer.
Can you think of another positive
My personal favourite is the rovers on Mars. They’re so cute and
we’re getting such good pictures from them and of them. They could do a lot of the science without the
pictures, but if they did I bet NASA’s budget would be lower. I
think the sweet spot is good science for which there can be a
In general I wish scientists paid more intention to
communicating with the rest of world. Some of that is talking to
journalists or serving as expert witnesses, and some of it is
thinking up ways to publicise and dramatise the cool stuff you’re
working on. Science needs to toot its own horn because it’s under
threat. Our country seems to be splitting more and more into
pro-science people and really substantially anti-science people.
Spectacles are just one tool for attracting positive attention, and
it’s not always appropriate, but when it is I’d like to see it
What are the downsides?
The first is, it could flop and make people think scientists don’t
know what they’re doing. Second, it gives people the wrong idea of
how science works and what’s important in science. It’s not the
Frankenstein moment when the doctor flips the switch and says “It’s
alive! It’s alive!” It’s all the work that goes up to that, and
that’s not very dramatic and not very spectacular most of the
There’s also a sort of justice issue. Some fields are going to
appeal more to public imagination than others. Some of the most
exciting science going on today doesn’t lend itself to spectacles.
Take the protein folding problem. The folded shapes of proteins are
crucial to their function. If someone came up with a good general
algorithm to predict how proteins would fold based on the DNA
sequence, that could be really, really important. But it’s hard to
imagine building a spectacle around it.
Let’s talk about Revive and Restore. Some conservation
biologists have argued that bringing back extinct species isn’t
a good use of resources, but you’ve been fairly positive about it
Part of it does come back to what we’ve been talking about. I think
it has the potential to instil a sense of wonder or awe in people.
Seeing an actual living woolly mammoth or a woolly mammoth 2.0
would have a strong positive effect on a lot of people. But I
wouldn’t support federal spending on this stuff. It should be done
with new money so it doesn’t reduce the amount of money spent on
classic conservation. It could be the woolly mammoth brought to you
by CitiBank. Or Larry Ellison. In the long run, if it works, it
should increase the excitement, support, and funding for
conservation biology, as well as creating and perfecting tools that
can be used to protect existing endangered species.
This article originally appeared on Wired.com